Originally published February 26, 2013 on reading.org

The Eskimos have 52 words for snow because it is so special to them; there ought to be as many for love.Margaret Atwood

We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way.Leon Russell

Margaret Atwood is right, of course. We could communicate more effectively with more words to describe different kinds of love. But having just one word is infinitely better than none.

Words, despite their limitations, help us talk about topics we would not otherwise be able to discuss, and see things we would not otherwise be able to see. A word is a candle held up in the darkness to help us move forward.

Words might be humanity’s greatest invention. A common vocabulary helps us share emotions, share ideas, learn, grow. And this is just as true in conversation in schools as it is in conversations at home.

An important common vocabulary in schools, as Phil Schlechty has explained, could be developed around student engagement. Teachers can have meaningful conversations defining and acting on the terms authentic engagement, strategic compliance, and off-task behavior. And once the words are defined, teachers can share ideas and strategies to increase authentic engagement.

Educators can also benefit from coming to a shared understanding of positive reinforcement, and defining such ideas as growth mindset, ratio of interaction, and positivity. When people develop clear definitions of positive and negative reinforcements, they begin to see interactions in a clearer way in the classroom. Some words make the invisible, visible.

Powerful professional learning also happens when teachers agree about the meaning of other words, such as those describing reading strategies, like text-to-self or summarizing, or writing concepts such as sentence fluency, coherence, or voice. The simple act of talking about a word like voice, and working to develop a shared, deeper understanding, can be very meaningful professional development.

Teachers, of course, are not the only people who need to develop a shared vocabulary. When administrators do not share with teachers a common vocabulary about the meaning and importance of observations, their evaluations have little positive impact on teaching and learning. What good is an administrator’s evaluation when the teacher and administrator can’t authentically talk about what was observed? Worse, what good are observations when observers can’t clearly define what they are seeing?

A clear picture of reality is an essential part of growth, but the picture does have to be clear, and people need a shared understanding if they are going to talk about it.

Students should also be a part of developing a shared vocabulary. When students understand authentic engagement and strategic compliance, they can give meaningful feedback to their teachers on what works and what doesn’t work for them. Sandi Silbernagel, for example, a teacher in Slidell, Louisiana, learns a lot by asking her second graders for their feedback on their level of engagement.

No doubt Leon Russell was right. Sometimes the words can get in the way. But without words we can’t talk. Language is the means by which communication takes place.

And as in life, so in schools. We should do all we can to develop a shared vocabulary. When we can truly talk about what we see, important learning—for teachers, administrators, and students—can really happen.